The pandemic has disrupted teaching and the teacher workforce in a big way.
As the nation pivots to education recovery mode, questions abound and the stakes are high, from hot-button issues like teacher turnover to how COVID-19 has impacted the teacher pipeline and the experience for novice educators who first set foot in a classroom – real or virtual – during the shutdown.
Also, to what extent might innovations that emerged during the national experiment with remote instruction have staying power? And how might federal stimulus dollars be most effectively used to support educators and promote high-quality instruction?
These were among the issues addressed during a May 5 session at the Education Writers Association’s National Seminar on the pandemic’s implications for teachers and the teacher workforce.
Teacher candidates missed ‘formative experiences’
Dan Goldhaber, an expert on the teaching profession at the American Institutes for Research, said there’s no evidence for one common narrative he has seen in education news coverage during the pandemic: that teacher turnover surged.
“From the datasets that we actually have, that have tracked teachers thus far into the pandemic, there is not … an uptick in attrition,” said Goldhaber, who leads the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER). One factor may have been fear about economic uncertainty during the pandemic. (To learn more, see this recent commentary Goldhaber wrote for The 74.)
But Goldhaber said there’s reason to worry that turnover may rise over the next year. Another concern for Goldhaber? The fallout from disruptions to teacher preparation since the pandemic shutdown began in March 2020.
“A number of the … formative experiences that teacher-candidates would typically have while doing their student teaching were missed,” he said.
In addition, certain teacher licensing requirements were either waived or postponed by states. “What happens if you have … a larger share of teachers than typical who are in the workforce having not satisfied those requirements?” Goldhaber said.
How the coronavirus pandemic affected teachers
Marisol Garcia, the vice president of the Arizona Education Association, a statewide teachers’ union, offered insights on how the pandemic has impacted teachers, including their morale.
“The reality is, they’re in an awful place,” said Garcia during the EWA session. “This has not been easy. It has been difficult just as a human … with the trauma of COVID-19 and loss and illness.”
On top of that, Garcia said, “The job description changed so quickly, so fundamentally, fast.”
During the pandemic, Garcia’s union formed a task force that created a 30-page report and call to action, issued in June 2020, “New Vision for Arizona Schools.” It proposed a host of steps, including more funding to lower class sizes, one-to-one computer access for all students, extra funding for health and safety measures, a two-year moratorium on state standardized tests, and more. The report also emphasized greater teacher and union voice in decision-making.
One potential silver lining from the pandemic was the emergence of new practices and initiatives intended to better serve students and teachers.
A new model for mentoring teachers
Educator Keri Hubbard, who also joined the EWA panel, provided a concrete example. She’s the math director at Cadence Learning, a nonprofit that provides partner schools and districts with a curriculum and connects mentor teachers with educators new to the classroom.
The mentors provide virtual support, including videos in which they deliver the same lessons the new teachers are using to a group of students. Some teachers might simply watch the videos to inform their instruction. Others might show the videos to students, then follow up with direct instruction.
“Reimagining learning is something that Cadence Learning is all about,” Hubbard said. “It’s about: How do we build really strong habits [among teachers] to intellectually prepare for lessons every day?”
She added: Participating teachers “get the chance to kind of sit in the back of a really terrific teacher’s classroom and watch them teach before they” deliver a lesson.
Cadence, previously called the National Summer School Initiative, expects to reach 18,000 students this summer through work with school districts in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Providence; Rhode Island, and elsewhere, as well as public charter and private schools. Cadence also worked in the 2020-21 academic year with many of the same schools and will continue next fall.
A December 2020 study based on surveys of participants in the program generally found favorable impressions.
Throughout the EWA panel, the speakers and moderator Madeline Will, an Education Week reporter, identified story ideas for journalists to pursue related to teachers and the teacher workforce.
1. Examine whether teachers are actually leaving the workforce in your community at higher rates than usual.
Looking at relevant data and speaking to people within their communities, journalists can explore how (or whether) the pandemic has affected teacher attrition. They can also fill potential gaps in coverage, such as whether certain types of teachers are leaving at higher rates, such as those new to the profession or those who teach particular subjects.
The EdWeek Research Center surveyed about 700 teachers and 300 school leaders online in March 2021, finding that more teachers are thinking about leaving now than before the pandemic. When asked about the likelihood that they’ll leave teaching in the next two years, 54% said they are “somewhat” or “very likely” to do so. That’s compared with 34% in fall 2019, before the pandemic.
But Goldhaber cautioned not to confuse a survey answer with reality: “Sometimes how people respond is different from what they actually do.”
Another issue that surfaced is how incentives, such as higher teacher pay or increased support for teachers, might keep them in the profession.
2. How has the pandemic impacted teacher preparation and the early experiences of novice teachers in your state and the districts you cover?
Education Week’s Will noted that novice teachers “just had a baptism by fire into the teaching profession.”
Garisol said: “We’ve heard stories from last year, first-year teachers who, it was [like] drinking through a hose. I mean, it’s just been so difficult for them.”
The lack of in-person training for student-teachers has become a major obstacle. Traditionally, student-teachers shadow experienced teachers and get hands-on experience educating children. Education journalists can document nontraditional changes and their effects.
Some states waived in-person training requirements for teacher candidates due to the pandemic, but that raises questions about the readiness of those teachers once they enter classrooms full-time.
Other issues to consider include how school systems will support new teachers who missed formative experiences, and whether teacher licensing requirements, such as passing an exam, will be waived permanently for those who got a waiver.
3. Will the pandemic have a lasting impact on efforts to support teachers and rethink traditional staffing models in schools?
To what extent will changes sparked or accelerated by the pandemic have staying power? Now that many educators have taught from home using Zoom and other technology, is it possible they could continue doing some virtual teaching in the years ahead?
How else can schools use technology more effectively to teach students or support teachers, and will that affect staffing models?
“My hope is that we can use technology in ways that we haven’t,” said Goldhaber, such as allowing a consortium of rural districts to share a hard-to-find physics teacher and pay that person more. That’s not the typical way that people are employed.”
Cadence Learning’s model of providing virtual teacher mentors is another example of how to build teacher capacity.
4. How will school districts use stimulus money in relation to teachers?
The federal government is providing school systems a huge influx of extra money to address the effects of the pandemic.
Here are questions to guide reporting:
- How are school districts using that money?
- How are they helping to support teachers?
- What are smart uses of those dollars? What should they avoid doing with the money?
- Is raising teachers’ salaries a good use of those funds?
During the EWA session, the speakers weighed in with some ideas.
Goldhaber said raising teachers salaries can be a smart strategy, if done in targeted ways, rather than across-the-board. He argued for increasing salaries more sharply for junior teachers and those in harder-to-staff areas, such as special education and science, technology, engineering and math.
“We’ve been fighting, and we are still fighting here in Arizona for [teacher] salary increases,” said Garcia of the Arizona Education Association. “I worry about all the [American] Recovery Act money going directly to salaries. However, what we’re seeing some districts do creatively is offer stipends for folks who have really done their incredible work.”
Garcia also said signing bonuses for new teachers is a good idea. She also argues that using the federal dollars to reduce class sizes is also valuable, even if it’s only for a few years.
Hubbard of Cadence Learning said higher pay “will attract great people who might not have seen the teaching profession as a viable option.” But, she added, “I [also] like the idea of that money being put toward creative ways to staff” schools.